Archive for the ‘Virtual/Online Communities’ Category

I’ve been away from my beloved blog here for so long, I feel as though I should sing a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

But I’ll spare you.

My primary academic interest is examining the ways we create and recreate our lives in virtual spaces. I come from the point of view that technology like a hammer or saw;  fantastically useful tools that someone can decide to pick up and use as an implant of construction or destruction. It’s not the tool, its the end user.

Virtually every new communication technology from the alphabet (Thank you Nancy Baym for that great quote from Plato!)* to the airplane (because you do realize that transportation is a type of communication tool, right?) to the Internet has been decried as that thing that will make our society dystopic, make our society utopic, make us smarter, make us dumber, foster connections between people, drive us farther apart. And someone will always proclaim that it somehow makes us less human and our youths sex mad, .

Poppycock and Balderdash.

This is why I disagree with authors like Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkel. Yes I think society has changed, but I think it was and is still doing just that: changing.  Every age has its affordances and constraints from its technology, but technology is just the tool, not the determiner of the world we live in.

That is completely up to us.

Anyway, for the uninitiated among you, xkcd is a thrice weekly web comic written by Randall Munroe.  It is funny, highly geeky, and at times head scratchy. A few days ago, he absolutely nailed how ridiculous the moral ( and every other) panic associated with technology is.

(BTW: if you are not familiar with the comic, I suggest checking it out. It’s great!)

* In her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym quotes Socrates’ warning‘, by way of Plato,  that the creation of an alphabet that allowed people to write instead of extemporaneously orate would make us all dullards. Makes me chuckle every time. 

(Link to this comic: http://xkcd.com/1289/)

xkcd Simple Answers

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In 2001 Marc Prensky coined the term Digital Native. He defined this as young people (since this was written in 2001 he was referring to people born from roughly 1985 after). Who, “spent their entire lives surrounded… all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001).

I think he made a good point, children born in the last two decades of the 20th century were born into a technological environment that was very unique. While this could be said about any generation, this group’s technological experience was colored by significant cultural changes that shaped the century.  The United States Census Bureau issued a report that stated that 1961 17% of mothers returned to work within the first 12 months of giving birth, by 2007 that figure was 64% (United States Census Bureau, pp. 13-14).

Children born in 1961 had a few ways of interacting with others, primarily telephone and US mail. National broadcasting was something that was confined to a few large media institutions. You had to be selected by one of them to be seen in a broadcast produced by others. Television and movies consumed by children and youth in 1961 were constrained in the topics that could be discussed, the use of profanity and the images that could be shown. Compared to children in 2001, the scope of their world was smaller and more closely controlled by their community (familial and geographical) and options for interaction were more limited as well as more easily supervised.

Children born 30 years later grew up in a very different cultural landscape.  They had more options for one on one interaction, along with that they had the chore of deciding which tool they would use to communicate with various members of their social network (ie. mailing a grandparent a thank you note for a present  versus emailing a parent on a business trip).  They were able to directly broadcast their thoughts and actions to national and even international audiences without an intermediary controlling the broadcast. They were using technologies that were not always completely understood by their parents and other adults. At the same time that Prensky was writing about children and youths as digital natives, Bovill and Livingstone (2001) described children in First World countries as inhabiting a “bedroom culture”. They described homes in Western societies it is taken for granted that most of the children had their own bedrooms that are filled with electronics such as radios, TVs, computers, iPods, etc.

My issue with the term Digital Native is that they aren’t natives.

In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, these are the first 6 definitions of the word native:

1: inborn, innate <native talents>

2: belonging to a particular place by birth

3 archaic: closely related

4: belonging to or associated with one by birth

5: natural, normal

6 a : grown, produced, or originating in a particular place or in the vicinity : local

b : living or growing naturally in a particular region : indigenous

All of these definitions carry with them the notion of a place where someone is born and/or bred or something that is intrinsic to who they are[1]. No one is born digital or as a resident of The Internet; living the digital life is something learned; humans need to become literate with it. This is not an odd or new concept. We are not born knowing how to use a telephone, little children may imitate their parents’ behavior and body language while chattering into a phone (and I’m looking at you my beloved nephew) but they have to be taught how to make a phone call. Children may sit in front of a TV but they need to be taught how to change the channel (Ok, show of hands, how many of you used to think that the people on TV lived inside the cable or TV itself?)

If you read the entire article by Prensky, he was specifically referring to education, K through college (Prensky 2000) but even in that case I don’t like that phrase. Aside from these phrases feeling disrespectful to immigrants, his paper seems to suggest that people who were born before the digital are will always have a handicap, he calls it and accent, navigating through digital culture and that people born in it “They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work” (Prensky, 2001).  He implies that using technology is something that is fundamental to post digital people. I would say that, like reading, navigating and being able to vet information online is a learned skill. While it’s use is something assumptive and a necessity in today’s business world, it’s not a fundamental skill because becoming digital involves “old fashioned” skills such as reading, logic, communicating clearly, etc.

A big thing I see is missing completely is while the amount and form of media has exploded, how the human brain perceives and retains information has not. Also, sound instructional design is sound instructional design regardless of the media used to convey the message. An adjunct to that idea is that in a classroom situation, a good instructor can work with the group they are given. Look, it was so-called Digital Immigrants who designed much of the “Digital”, it’s not a foreign land but a land they designed and built.  I think these phrases just serves to create generation gap that I’m not really sure exists to the extent that he portrays.

Prensky is now talking about something called “Digital Wisdom” which means finding the best combination of mind and technology. He talks about technology as enhancing human beings. I liked this idea when Vannevar Bush wrote about Memex as a form of brain extension in As We May Think back in 1945.


Bovill, M., & Livingstone, S. (2001). Bedroom culture and the privatization of media use.

Children reporting online: The cultural politics of the computer lab. (2004). Television & New Media, 5(2), 87-107. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=13081297&site=ehost-live

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Employment characterisitcs of families summary. (Economic Release No. USDL-12-0771). Washington, DC: United States Department of Labor

[1] While one might argue that language is not something inborn or intrinsic, I would say that language falls under definition #4. Even though a child may not be able to speak until 18 months or so, they are developing language skill from the beginning. I once read somewhere (and I can’t remember where so I’m not able to verify this) that by the time a baby is four or five months old, the noises they make are the noises they need to speak the language(s) of the people their caretakers.

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In a prior blog post, I outlined a sequence of events that I seem to occur in most of the incidents of online identity deception. The sequence I outlined was:

  1. First a person joins a community/group manifests a personality that is very charming and has a compelling story.
  2. After becoming an integrated member of the group’s social network, the false persona’s narrative takes the form of “this is the trial I face” —> look at how I bravely deal with/overcome it.
  3. The false persona begins  intense one on one correspondence offline with one or more group members
  4. The false persona makes some kind of critical error in the narrative that becomes the tipping point between the false persona’s image as a sympathetic figure and the revelation that the false persona is an imposter.

Writing about Munchausen by Internet, Feldman (2000) listed 10 clues to aid in the detection of Factitious Internet claims[i] I have seen all of these behaviors manifested in the various online identity hoaxes I have read. Behaviors on that like include: near fatal medical crises followed by seemingly miraculous recoveries; a continuous string of dramatic events, resisting phone or richer forms of communication media and confining communication to text on the screen (p. 670).

I realized shortly after making that post, that there was a fifth point I should have added: the false persona will usually make a public statement where they confirm the deception and offer an explanation. Depending on the motivation of the deception it will either be a woeful mea culpa[ii] or they will taunt the group for being so gullible (see Feldman, 2000; Joinson and Dietz-Uhler, 2002; prince-koyang, 2012). Again, Feldman compiled a list of common reactions of both the deceptive individual as well as group members after the deception has been discovered (p. 671).

12 years after Feldman, the number of online communities has grown explosively and with it the number of incidents of identity deception hoaxes.[iii]  Feldman wrote specifically about deception within medical support group communities, hence, his focus on Factitious Disorder and Munchausen by Proxy. However, based on my anecdotal observations I have reason to believe that the behaviors he outlined are applicable across the spectrum of online identity hoaxes whether they occur within blogs, social network sites, or message boards. Feldman concludes by saying that medical personnel should counsel patients who use the Internet for support and information to use caution when connecting to people online. If my belief that these behaviors extend outside the healthcare realm is accurate, than anyone who has oversight of venues that support the development of an online community should be able to recognize these behaviors so they can intervene before the confidence of community members is damaged by the betrayal of a false persona walking amongst them.


Feldman, M. D. (2000). Munchausen by internet: Detecting factitious illness and crisis on the internet. Southern Medical Journal, 93(7), 669.

Joinson, A. N., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2002). Explanations for the perpetration of and reactions to deception in a virtual community. Social Science Computer Review, 20(3), 275.

prince-koyang. (2012, June 4). 왕자고양이//floating through. Message posted to http://prince-koyangi.tumblr.com/


[i] Both Factitious Disorder and Munchausen by Proxy involve an individual who is feigning or inducing illness, usually life threatening conditions. In Factitious Disorder the person is putting themselves forward as the ill individual. By comparison, in cases of Munchausen by Proxy the primary communicator puts themselves forth as a parent or caretaker of a critically ill individual. See Feldman, 2000 for some specific examples of this phenomenon.

[ii] As an example of the type of apologetic post I am referring to. This was posted BY D.F. after it became apparent that he had created the false persona of Nowheremom. Part of the deception included D.F. posing as Nowheremom’s fiancée.

Throughout November and December 1999, I engaged in a banter with this persona. At that time, I wanted mainly to bring some humour and entertainment to the forums. People were indeed entertained during those two months and some called it a soap opera. As time went by, NOWHEREMOM started to take an air of reality even to me. Once again, it never was my intention to hurt anyone. I simply had not realized how much people and even myself had become attached to her. In early January 2000, after Ornery mentioned the word “marriage”, one day I simply panicked and in that instant, my mind was clouded enough that, instead of simply revealing that it was a hoax, I killed her. I had never expected the grief that overcame this community. It even overcame me and I sobbed for three days as if she had been real. I came to the conclusion that to reveal the hoax would hurt too many innocent people and I was hoping that the whole thing would simply fade away. It was not meant to be. In July 2000, a member named vapor uncovered evidence of the hoax and revealed it to a few people. Instead of coming clean, still believing that the hurt to our community would be too great, I denied the whole thing. Vapor was vilified and ostracized for this. To him, I can only offer my sincere apology for I am truly sorry for the way he was treated on this matter. I lied to some people closest and dearest to me because I thought that, in doing so, I was protecting them from becoming accomplices in my cover-up. Unfortunately, many came to my defense in a spirited fashion and ended up unknowingly defending a lie. The matter never rested and many of my friends and acquaintances ended up being divided into two clans. In particular, I know some outside individuals who would be pleased to no end watching the fabric of this community unravel over this. The well-being of this community is paramount in my book for I do consider you my Internet family It was simply a hoax which I thought was harmless and which got out of hand when I panicked 16 months ago. I sincerely apologize to everybody involved or hurt by this matter.

[iii] As I have mentioned in prior posts, I draw a clear distinction between fraud, where a deceptive person perpetrates the fraud specifically for financial gain, and an identity hoax where the perpetrator puts forth a false persona for reasons other than fraud. In the case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, Debbie Swenson, the deceiver, donated any money she was given to legitimate cancer charities.

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A couple of weeks ago I published a blog post about an incident of identity deception that took place on Tumblr.  The false persona had self identified as being “pangender asexual demiplatonic….trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat)”.
I was pretty sure that anyone who read this would find at least one of those terms newand/or confusing so I set out to create a glossary explaining what these terms mean. So here I am 2 weeks, 3300 words, 5 entries and 31 references later knowing more about several social sub groups that I didn’t even know existed

Beyond that, I discovered  tiny subsectors of society that the Communications academy has only begun to learn more about.  Identity labels such as otherkin or asexual are good examples of  one of functions CMC has become dominant in: the construction of identity in individuals who are considered far outside the mainstream.

For example, while what could be described as proto-otherkin individuals began gathering as early as the 1970s, it was email groups and Usernet that formed a nucleus of what has become the Otherkin community today; computer mediated communication (CMC) tools were the tipping point that took this from a small local group to an international community . Today, one site,  Otherkin.net has almost 400 registered users and in addition, sites like Tumblr  have active otherkin communities.

These communication hubs provide a forum for community building. So you while you have  people constructing the group identity, the group identity enables a person to create a more concrete and specific individual identity for themselves. The group provides the validation, support and language constructs (bot created and appropriated jargon, “how to come out”scripts, explanations for people outside the community, etc) that constitute the boundaries of the community. When you have boundaries it becomes easier for a person to know if they are a community member, an outsider, or a visitor, for example and ethnographer or sympathetic family member (Fairhurst and Putnam, 2004).

These microcommunities have found rich soil in this generation of social networking sites (SNS)  and that sense of community is reinforced by the ties these like minded people create between each other. CMCs have made this possible on a scope that could never have been imagined 20 years ago. I believe these are fertile fields for scholars in the Social Sciences, especially Communications because it there isn’t much scholarship out there for many of these groups and studying these groups will help us learn more if and how of community, social networks, and social ties have been changed or enhanced by the continuing ubiquity of CMCs and SNS.

The first  people who grew up with personal email addresses as the norm are on the way to college and within about a decade the first people who have grown up steeped in the panopticon of FaceBook (and is successors) will follow them. By beginning to study these microcommunities now, we may be able to develop a better understanding the norms and anomalies of community formation development and dissolution among groups for whom the connection between time, place and communication is more tenuous than in previous generations.

I hope you will find the glossary helpful


Fairhurst, G. T., & Putnam, L. (2004). Organizations as discursive constructions. Communication Theory (10503293), 14(1), 5-26.

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(When I use the term trans*, I am specifically, not including transgender individuals under that label. I will be posting a page defining these concepts shortly)

Other hoaxes I’ve blogged about here came to light when the deception was dragged into the light, generally by someone who become suspicious of the deceptive narrative. In this case it seems the goal here was to only perpetrate this hoax long enough to rook enough people so the hoaxers could say, “Gotcha!” I find this hoax interesting because up to now, most of the incidents I’ve reviewed were either rooted in filling a psychological need and in the case of LonelyGirl15 was a marketing scheme. Depending on your POV, these hoaxers were calling attention to a perversion of the social justice movement by slacktivists or kids being mean and dismissive of groups that already feel marginalized.

Language is a social construct. We string together a group of sounds and point at an object called an automobile or a pair of glasses. Identity is also something of  a social construct. We identify with certain groups based upon thinks such our race or ethnic background, what we do for a living or what we do in our free time. Those labels we embrace became shorthand as societal (and often personal) stereotypes project meaning onto a person’s identity. Regardless of whether a part of our identity is innate or self selected, disabled versus jock, for example, elements of each of those labels we wear have a societally assigned meaning as well as a personal one.

For example, let’s say you injure yourself slipping on an icy sidewalk and a person runs up to you to offer assistance, if she says she is a doctor that will carry with it one meaning as opposed to if the person is wearing a Dunkin’ Donuts uniform. The doctor might be a dermatologist and the Dunkin’ Donuts employee a highly experienced volunteer EMT but their words and dress can affect the trust you have in them if they begin administering first aid to you.

The concept of Otherkin (and in fact the whole trans* movement) is possibly an example of the exponential effect CMCs have on the constitutive nature of language in the construction of identity. If someone posts to an Otherkin support site about coming to the realization that he or she is a cat in a human body, that statement will be supported and his or her identity as such will be reinforced.  If one is engaged in a role playing game or belongs to the furry subculture, it is understood that these are identities that serve as temporary wrappers for the person others know and interact with in the concrete world. Trans* people, though, are the mirror images of that social construct. The human being who passes through the concrete world is the wrapper and the trans* image (species, disability, race, etc.) is the true being, not a persona.

This raises some questions for me. Usually, both verbal and visual (clothing, the objects we carry with us, the vehicle we drive) cues construct our identity. In the context of Internet dating that identity is self created with text and photographs but if and when the people meet, that adds to the other person’s perception of an individual’s identity.

But, what does it mean if your self constructed identity is solely textual and at complete odds with all of the other visual and verbal cues and personal artifacts associated with a person. I might tell you I’m a wolf trapped in a human body but I am visibly human in appearance, action and public behavior. If the only place my true identity exists is within the bounded reality of the Internet and the only way I construct it is with words and occasional graphics that bear no resemblance to my concrete flesh, what does that say about the constitutive nature of language on identity, how broadly and deeply can the scope of this constituation go? If you are just one of a community of thousands who are all constructing or supporting the construction of identity in this manner what does this mean.

Is there a sociological or philosophical justification for trans* people for  appropriate the language of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements?

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It happened again.  A few people got to together and decided to play Loki on the Internet in the name of exposing a perversion of the social justice movement.

In  early June, a person going by the screen name of prince-koyang created a new account on the microblog site Tumblr and made this post (punctuation and spelling is taken verbatim from the post):

“hello there. i’m new to tumblr and just thought i’d introduce myself. my name is jun, or june, depending on how i’m feeling. i’m a 16 year old pangender asexual demiplatonic. i’m also trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat). i have high-functioning autism as well. i’m glad to finally have found a community where i’m accepted & where i can post about my issues

without being discriminated against.

: )

my pronouns are xie, xir, xis and xiself. please feel free to follow me — i’ll follow back!”

Of the comments to this intro, 20 were either “reblogs” where someone connected this post to their own blog, and “likes” which functions in the same manner as the Like button in FaceBook.  The remaining few comments were critical of the use of the term trans-racial and prince-koyang’sself-identifying as a feline Otherkin.  A few others warned xir (pronounced zir) to be cautious on Tumblr because there would be people who would be very vocal in their intolerance for xir differences.

On July 5, 2012 prince-koyang posted the following:

“This is starting to get kind of boring so I suppose it’s time to give it up. As some of our more astute readers have noticed, this is a troll blog — a collaborative trolling effort between three teenagers with too much time on their hands. None of us are autistic, pangender, asexual, demiromantic, transethnic, or a cat, although one of us is 16 and Canadian. It was fun while it lasted.

You have created a community in which someone can ….find it plausible that someone would believe they are a Korean cat with autism and appropriate social justice terminology to defend that belief. What does that say about the state of your community?….

But it’s completely stupid (tw: ableism) and it trivializes the struggles of people who actually suffer from oppression (people laughing at you on the internet is not oppression). It also enables unhealthy escapist attitudes and, in some cases, severe mental illness. One of our more fervent supporters is a diagnosed schizophrenic, who’s chalked up their schizophrenic delusions to their identity as a “multiple system”. Don’t tell them to get treatment, or you’re being oppressive! In short: the Tumblr SJ [social justice] community has turned into a giant joke. And what better way to lampoon it than with, well… a giant joke?”

This post generated over 2000 comments. Most of them supporting (sometimes grudgingly) the points made by the hoaxers. The chorus of voices who were supportive of Jun/June was smaller in terms of their speaking out on the blog but one of them did create a Tumble account called boycott-prince-koyangi which some attempted to use as a rallying site for those who were angered, hurt and/or offended by the blog hoax.

Unsurprisingly, the blog is now just showing a placeholder, the hoaxers job s done and the snake oil salesman has left town. More thoughts on this will follow shortly.  I will also post a page explaining the some of the concepts addressed in the Tumblr hoax such as otherkin, trans-x identities and such.

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In Part I of The Stranger Among Us, I described a pattern I’ve notices in incidents of online identity deception that included the cultivation of a shadow network of strong ties within the online community.

Julie Graham cultivated strong enough ties with select female members of her community they disclosed intimate details of problems they were having to her. When it came out that the persona of Julie was a lie, one of the often quoted community responses is succinct and potent, “I felt raped” (Stone, 1991, p. 3; see also McGeer, 2004). Kaycee Nicole Swenson formed a such a strong connection with one group member that he helped her set up a website for her poetry (http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819) and said that she was like a daughter to him. J.S. Dirr engaged in at least two cyber romances during that decade long hoax.

Seeking a deeper connection with select group member in and of itself is typical behavior. People will tend to gravitate towards others based on commonalities such as proximity, shared interests, etc. However, the act of cultivating these sub rosa relationships should create a high level of tension for the deceptive individual.

On one hand the goal of the deceptive individual is to prevent detection.  Academics writing about deception have noted that the language constructs used by the deceptive individual are designed to create distance between the false persona and the community. Ambiguous language is a tool of the trade when perpetrating an online deception (Newman, Pennebaker, Berry & Richards, 2003; Hancock, Curry, Goorha, & Woodworth ,2008 ).  This seems to be in direct conflict with the trading of increasingly intimate confidences that deepen a tie

Even though the disclosures are comprised of (at least partially) manufactured information, you’re still talking about an additional piece of deceptive narration that a person has to keep track of. They not only have to keep it straight with the individual they are bonding with but they also have to keep it consistent with the deceptive narrative they are creating within the group. If they are bonding the false person to multiple group members than means there are additional threads for each deepening tie.

This leaves me with a few questions. First, is this something anecdotal, maybe it’s just the case studies I’ve been drawn to read up on? If it’s not, my next question is why does this occur? Is the deceptive person seeding the community with “defenders” who they can depend on to confirm the veracity of the false persona? In cases where the impetus for the deception seems based in emotion, could this just be another way the deceptive individual is trying to get their needs met? (It is interesting to note that in the case of the LonleyGirl15 hoax on YouTube, the false persona initiated selected contact with media sources, but not individuals).


Hancock, J. T., Curry, L. E., Goorha, S., & Woodworth, M. (2008). On lying and being lied to: A linguistic analysis of deception in computer-mediated communication. Discourse Processes, 45(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/01638530701739181

http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819 (retreived June 30, 2012)

McGeer, V. (2004). Developing trust on the internet. Analyse & Kritik, 26(1), 91-107.

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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(Part I)

A fellow grad student asked me how I differentiated between incidents of online identity hoaxes and the multiple personas a person may maintain online. I gave him an an answer I was not satisfied with.My last post dealt mainly with the role played by the screen name and how it is the first step in crafting your online identity.When a person crafts a false persona, the name they choose to loose is a significant first step because it affects how others see the persona and how the person who inhabits these person that he or she has created. (Stommel, 2007; Bechar-Israeli, 1995).

Kacey, J.S and Julia. Which is the middle aged woman, which is the plucky teen age girl and which is the hyper sexualized 20something year old man?

Most people would agree that there is a difference between maintaining an online persona (or even multiple personas) and engaging in identity deception. My first instinct is to call malicious intent the linchpin of a working definition. However, that becomes problematic because most of the well known cases of online identity deception are not necessarily rooted in malicious intent.

One of the earliest documented cases of an online identity hoax involved a middle aged disabled woman by the name of Julie.  Stone says, “[I]n the intimate electronic companionships that can develop during on-line conferencing between people….Julie’s women friends shared their deepest troubles, and she offered them advice.…(1991)”. You can guess where this is going.  The persona that people knew as “Julie” was not a middle aged, disabled woman but a middle aged able bodied *male* psychiatrist. When unmasked he said that he had carried on this hoax for 3 years in order to gain greater insight into women and how they communicate. Stone continues, “’I felt raped,’ one [of the women Julie deceived] said. “I felt that my deepest secrets had been violated”.  Several went so far as to repudiate the genuine gains they had made…lives. They felt those gains were predicated on deceit and trickery (1991, p2-3).

The Nowhere Mom hoax was borne out of a similar impulse, the man behind the persona wanted to see what it was like to be a woman in the online community he was a part of. LonelyGirl15, which I wrote a paper on, was a marketing ploy. In this cases of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, J.S. Dirr and Abby Pierce the reasons are less clear but the intent does not seem to be about malice so much as a lonely person trying to create meaning in a life that the feel has none.  Those deceptions seem to have been rooted in emotional or mood disorders.

If not malicious intent, what are the defining factors of a case of online identity deception? The next logical place I would look is at the aftermath of the hoax, when the persona has been unmasked as being false. But that doesn’t seem to fit just right either.

I know I’m going to come back to this.

Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995). FROM ?bonehead? TO ?cLoNehEAd?: NICKNAMES, PLAY, AND IDENTITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT1. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 1(2), 0-0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1995.tb00325.x

Stommel, W. (2007). Mein nick bin ich! nicknames in a german forum on eating disorders. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00390.x

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.

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A few weeks ago I was explaining my academic interest in online identity hoaxes to another grad student and he asked me a question that I knew the answer to. Well sort of knew the answer to.  He asked me what the difference was between having an online persona and perpetrating an identity hoax.  I gave an answer that wasn’t wrong but didn’t feel complete.  I suspect that like my definition of an online community, this is one of those answers that will evolve the more I study this.

When we join a community or any kind of interactive website, we immediately begin creating our persona.  The first step of that is the selection of our screen name (Stommel, 2007; Bechar-Israeli, 1995).  Bechar-Israeli emphasizes the key role screen makes play in his 1995 observation of screen names (which are called nicknames) in the Internet Relay Chat system. He says, “nicks serve many functions. They are, first of all, a means to announce one’s willingness to play. They are a kind of mini-ritual in which, each time participants log on, they declare their entrance into the state of play…. Nicks become part of our personality and reputation in the computer community” (Bechar-Israeli, 1995, Summary and Discussion, par.3).

Our screen name is another example of Goffman’s cues given and cues given off. For example if one man selects the screen name Robert512 and another man selects SpeedRacer they are sending a message as to how they wish to be seen buy the group. But beyond that, they are giving off cues based on others’ perception based on the type of name they selected, does it reflect a hobby, does it seem like you just threw some numbers on the end of your name, or does describe your outlook on life.  Bechar-Israeli created a taxonomy based on the nearly 300 screen names he reviewed and broke them down into six categories. How much more important is it to choose a screen name for the deceptive identity so that the deception can continue as long as possible without being questioned

  • People using their real name
  • Self related names
  • Names related to medium, technology, and their nature
  • Names of flora, faun, and objects
  • Play on words and sounds
  • Names related to figures in literature, films, fairy tales, and famous people
  • Names related to sex and provocation

But the screen name is just the beginning. There are thousands of ways, highly visible and barely perceptible, that we construct our identities in online communities. The language we use, our demeanor (aggressive, shy, knowledgeable, newbie, chipper, worried), how we interact with others. Even the frequency of our interactions sends a message to the group we may or may not be aware we are sending.

Part II


Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995). FROM ?bonehead? TO ?cLoNehEAd?: NICKNAMES, PLAY, AND IDENTITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT1. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 1(2), 0-0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1995.tb00325.x

Stommel, W. (2007). Mein nick bin ich! nicknames in a german forum on eating disorders. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00390.x

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.

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The first couple of steps in the online identity hoax process involve a “person” with a compelling life story. Once that person is part of the social structure their life, as documented in their posts, becomes a litany of dramatic events.

The false persona’s posts take on the form of a dramatic narrative with the false persona cast as the brave hero weathering crisis after crisis. Additionally, in these situations the frequency and intensity of the crises increases over time. Despite the unlikelihood of so many major events befalling one person, the hoax continues as a critical mass of group members are still supportive of the false persona (or are keeping any misgivings to themselves).  The group members are generally intelligent, perceptive people who are not new to socializing through computer mediated communication (CMC).

Walther theorizes in Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction (1996), when people communicate via CMC they fill in any missing cues and information heuristically. The deceptive person behind the false persona seems to exploit the Hyperpersonal Effect by creating a character for whom living in a constant state of crisis is the norm. I think creates an environment so rich in heuristic and emotional thoughts and behaviors that it might disrupt the normal socialization process that new group members go through.

The communication of the deceptive individual behind the deception seems to be in synch with Zhou, Burgoon, Zhang and Nunamaker’s observations about the language dominance of a deceptive individual in CMC environments (2004). They found that the intensity of the deceiver’s communication increased over the life of the deception as a mechanism for asserting language dominance over the group’s communication. This is consistent with the increasing the false persona experiencing increasingly dramatic incidents in their lives (as presented through their posts).

One of the things I wonder is what role, if any, the constant stream of crises play in prolonging the deception. Some of the elements presented by the false persona seem ludicrous after the fact. What prevents group members from seeing it or, at the very least, mentioning any misgivings they may have?

Could it be that it goes unchallenged because the issues adopted by the false persona are sensitive ones. Cancer or the death of a child are issues that touch the deepest of human fears. Could group members be consciously or unconsciously fearful of violating the social norm of holding these kinds of stories sacrosanct?  My other idea is that the deception might go unchallenged because these crises create a collective anxiety that uses up so much cognitive processing, either collectively and/or on the individual level that there is insufficient processing power left to engage in any kind of meaningful warranting of the false persona’s stories.

I guess I just assigned myself a new paper….


Zhou, L., Burgoon, J. K., Zhang, D., & Nunamaker, J. F. (2004). Language dominance in interpersonal deception in computer-mediated communication. Computers in Human Behavior, 20(3), 381. doi:10.1016/S0747-5632(03)00051-7

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43. doi:10.1177/009365096023001001

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My adviser sent me a link to a story in Gawker about JS Dirr and the Warrior Eli hoax.

The process of an online identity hoax in a community of choice intrigues me because after all that holds these communities together are the thin threads of  mutual trust and an tacit agreement that people will be relatively truthful in their communication. It is one thing to fib about your education or age and something else to create a false persona and to actively convince people they are interacting with it. At some point I hope to study what happens to communities in the wake of this type of traumatic event and what markers might predict which communities will become more tightly knit and which will fall apart or fracture into pieces.

In my research on incidents of  identity deception*, one thing I’ve noticed in the is that of the all of the ones I reviewed seem to follow a very similar script as outlined below.  I will expand on my thoughts on each of these points in subsequent blog posts.

The Identity Deception Process

  1. First a person joins a community/group manifests a personality that is very charming and has a compelling story.  Nowheremom was a single mother in a community that was predominantly men; Kaycee Nicole Swenson was a bright teenager who was cheerful despite batting cancer and in the case of JS Dirr the persona was presented as a member of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police who seemed to get every girlfriend pregnant.
  2. After becoming an integrated member of the group’s social network, the false persona’s posts take on a “Perils of Pauline” motif. This is usually not apparent and/or discussed within the group until late in the deception. One interesting example (I’m sorry, I can’t remember the article so I don’t have cite for this), was a quote I read in an article about the Kaycee Nicole Swenson hoax. One of the group members was a nurse and recognized that a particular treatment alluded to by Kaycee was not the correct treatment for the life threatening crisis she claimed to have had. He didn’t raise his suspicions publicly and the
  3. Next, they will begin an intense one on one correspondence offline with several select group members. I sometimes wonder whether this is done to fulfill a need on the part of the deceptive individual or
  4. In the final act, the false persona makes some kind of critical error in the narrative that becomes the tipping point between the false persona’s image as a sympathetic figure and the revelation that the false persona is an imposter

* My capstone project for my Masters program was a content analysis of the YouTube LonelyGirl15 hoax.

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